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NIZHNY NOVGOROD, Russia (AP) — Hernan Gomez is either soccer’s most candid coach, or a master motivator who says one thing in public and another to his Panama players as they navigate through the country’s first World Cup.

“This is going to be our hardest match by far,” Gomez said Saturday, on the eve of the Central American team’s clash against England in Group G.

That’s saying something since Panama lost to Belgium 3-0 in its opener.

“Against England we could get the same score,” Gomez added, “or even worse.”

Gomez even announced his starting lineup, the same one he used against Belgium.

This came as England’s possible lineup was revealed in a photograph, prompting charges of disloyalty against reporters covering the team with inflammatory headlines splashed across British tabloids.

This is Gomez’s public face, a savvy operator who’s in the World Cup with his third country following spells with his native Colombia and Ecuador.

Gomez was so forthcoming about being an underdog that one reporter asked him if it demoralized his players.

“That’s only what I’m saying here,” he replied.

England is the clear favorite in the match and will reach the round of 16 if it beats Panama on Sunday following a 2-1 opening-game victory over Tunisia.

One thing going for Gomez’s team is the weather forecast. The temperature is expected to hit 30 C (86 F) for the game, which should suit the Panamanians better than England.

Whatever happens, Panama is the proverbial just-happy-to-be-here team.

The Canaleros advanced from the CONCACAF region by rallying to beat Costa Rica 2-1 on the same night 8 ½ months ago that Trinidad and Tobago defeated the United States 2-1. That ended an American string of seven straight berths in the World Cup.

Panama’s problem will be scoring with only two goals in their last seven matches — five losses and two draws.

“If we are distracted for only a millisecond, we are going to suffer,” Gomez said. “They (England) don’t have a lot of individual stars like Belgium. But they work great as a team, particularly when it comes to ball recovery.”

Gomez went on and on about England, far more optimistic than most of the thousands of fans who have gathered in Nizhny Novgorod, jamming bars and streets in the Volga river city located about 400 kilometers (250 miles) east of Moscow.

Gomez described England as tactically clever, quick, organized, and “an excellent team with great players.”

“We need to be fortunate, have a good day, and get off on the right foot for our players to shine,” Gomez said.

Probably another “honorable loss,” as Gomez termed it, would keep the 4 million Panamanians happy. But why take chances?

“We know full well that people are supportive back home despite the 3-0 loss,” Gomez said. “But just as the country is pleased right now, tomorrow or the day after they could hate us. Ninety minutes of football can change your life.”


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